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Germany's Call Center Industry: A Survey of Services

FRANKFURT – Germany's fast-growing call center industry offers direct marketers a broad array of services – from established mass marketers like Walter to brawny new comers like o.tel.o and established boutiques like Phone Partners.

Competition is heating up rapidly with the most serious challenge, according to Wolfgang Wiencke, who has just taken his Profitel company into Walter, coming from the Americans, specifically Sitel and Sykes.

Both have only recently entered the market, Sitel through acquisition of a Brussels-based company, while Tampa-based Sykes launched a strategic partnership with TAS enterprises through a “pooling of interest” stock swap.

Media giant Bertelsmann's DM arm, AZ Direct Marketing, plans to expand its tele-marketing center in Springer near Hanover from its current 150 work stations to over 200.

“This is an exploding market,” international sales manager Heidi Bremner said, “where everybody needs inbound and outbound services.” AZ handles telemarketing for Carol Wright and Daytimers as part of its one-stop shopping service.

“The large call centers do nothing else but we do the whole thing from A-Z. Order a CD or a book from us by phone and we integrate everything and do it within a day.”

O.tel.o, the major private challenger to Deutsche Telekom now that the EU has liberalized European phone services, launched a call center network even before its parent company could get off the official mark.

A joint venture of VEBA and RWE, Germany's 4th and 6th largest industrial companies with a combined turnover of 60 billion German marks ($33.3 billion), o.tel.o's call center has both parents as clients.

“We've been in business for nine months and offer our clients everything from telesales and telemarketing to IT help desks,” Juergen Kopelke, the call center network's CEO, said. “We've handled major projects for RTL (the largest private TV network in Germany.)”

He hit the ground running last fall by linking his 150 seat call center to three other private providers – b.u.w., Sellbytel and Talkline – for a total of 1,000 workstations. The strategic alliance gives the partners access to o.tel.o's voice and date network.

“In the past,” Wiencke said about Walter “we looked upon ourselves as a call center service provider only and couched our offers in those terms.

“We now see ourselves much more as a business partner of our clients able to offer complete solutions to their problems. The client tells us what he wants done and we take over from there.

“That means accepting full responsibility for what we do, and sharing in the risk. I know that large call centers in the US have been doing that for some time. But the concept is new in Germany.”

Wiencke said a group of European call center vendors had gotten together to form the International Federation of Field Marketing (IFMA)which would offer international services.

“A company interested in conquering the German or European market need only give us the product it wishes to sell and we'll handle the item's introduction on the whole European market.”

In order to help speed IFMA's development Walter has formed a new company, Magnus, organized to help the process along in Germany.

Frankfurt-based Phone Partners sees itself as a boutique that stresses quality over quantity, CEO Dietmar Weixler said. “We can handle large numbers but we'd rather not just process a flood of DRTV calls.

“We work closely with Mercedes Benz. Our people sit should to shoulder with the sales personnel and take some of the pressure off them by handling return calls, doing market research and even inviting customers to special events.

“We invest in human resources where most call centers would rather put their money into technology so any idiot can use the software but lacks the tact and friendliness in dealing with customers that we can offer.”

Phone Partners has a training division that holds sessions in a client's premise to train in-house people. And Weixler is big on his quality client list – the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), Germany's answer to the New York Times, Deutsche Telekom, AIG, to cite a few.

And that's only a small cross-section of Germany's estimated 2,500 call centers. Last November the magazine Teletalk had 8 pages of “box ads” for more than 190 heavy hitters in the call center market.

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